Telluride: 'Moonlight' Shines in the Rockies (Analysis)

Naomie Harris, for her performance of the protagonist's crack addicted mother, stands the strongest shot of emerging from the ensemble to receive personal awards recognition, THR's Scott Feinberg predicts.
Courtesy of David Bornfriend/A24

Every year since 2009, when the Academy ended its cap of five nominees in the best picture category, at least one little indie has managed to blow away enough people to snag a slot — Precious, Winter's Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Her, Whiplash and, most recently, Room. There is a distinct possibility that Moonlight, which had its first-anywhere screening at Telluride on Friday night and then screened again here on Saturday, soon will join that list. Indeed, the low-budget indie drama, which some have called "the black Brokeback Mountain" (but which reminds me much more of 2011's Pariah), has been the talk of the fest, greeted at the end of each screening with floods of tears and rousing ovations.

Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and written and directed by Barry Jenkins (a longtime friend of the fest whose only prior directorial effort, Medicine for Melancholy, came eight years ago), the film was produced by Plan B (12 Years a Slave) and A24 (Room) and will be released by A24 on Oct. 21. It features no household names, but a large ensemble of first-rate actors, telling what Jenkins called "my story" during a pre-screening intro on Saturday.

Moonlight, which is broken into three chapters spanning some 20 years, movingly shows — as much as Hoop Dreams or Boyhood — how a boy's childhood shapes the man he grows into. In this case, the young man in question is black and gay, which Jenkins, a black filmmaker, daringly shows to be a very dangerous combination. In addition to exploring homophobia in the black community, he also turns his lens on the impact of absent father figures, the cycle of drug abuse and other topics rarely explored on film — as well as highlighting examples of people who do the right thing.

The three actors who play the protagonist in different phases of his life — Alex R. Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as Black — all are fantastic, as are the actors who pop up in one chapter or another, especially Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) and Andre Holland (The Knick). But the strongest performance in the film, and the one most likely to receive recognition from the Academy, unquestionably is Naomie Harris' as the protagonist's crack-addicted mother. The British actress, who I profiled in 2013, is the only performer to appear in all three chapters of Moonlight — she shot her scenes in just three days while in town for the Bond movie's junket, producer Jeremy Kleiner told me — and if she doesn't land a best supporting actress Oscar nom I will be surprised.